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The Splonk Five: Lydia Davis

© Theo Cote

Lydia Davis is the author of eight collections of stories, one novel—The End of the Story (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995)–and two books of non-fiction, Essays One (FSG, 2019) and Essays Two (FSG, 2021). She is also the translator of many works from French and other languages, including Proust’s Swann’s Way, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and a selection of the very short stories of the Dutch writer A.L. Snijders entitled Night Train (New Directions, 2021). Her most recent collection of short fiction, Our Strangers, appeared in Fall 2023 from Bookshop Editions. She lives in upstate New York.

The Splonk Five:

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with flash? Why it appeals and what frustrates you?

Well, I don’t call it “flash,” but simply “very short stories.” I started writing them way back in the ’70s, when I was feeling stuck writing longer, more traditional stories. I wanted an approach that would free me up and let me dive quickly into unfamiliar imaginative and emotional territory. I was inspired by the very short stories of Kafka and also by the contemporary Russell Edson (though he called what he wrote poems). Nothing about them frustrates me. I feel free to make them as short or as long as I like, in any form and mood, and entirely prose or with broken lines–at which point they sometimes cross over into being poems.

In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry (including prose poems) and the short story?

I do think there is a continuum from the very structured, traditional poem, to the looser, less formal poem, to the prose poem and from there continuing on to the very short story, the longer story, and so on. Sometimes the dividing line is hard to find. But in general, I see poetry as foregrounding language, including the sound of language, more explicitly, and story as foregrounding narrative. Flash fiction straddles the divide between poetry and fiction, leaning sometimes toward poetry, when it plays with rhythm, sound, repetition, and sometimes leaning toward the short story, when it focuses more on narrative and works more subtly with language.

Fundamentally, for you what makes a flash piece successful?

It seems to me successful if the author handles language with skill and sensitivity, treats the subject with respect (even if the subject is comical), and continues to be fresh and unpredictable right up to the end–unpredictable, but not gratuitous. The ending should be the natural outcome of the rest of the story. I appreciate interesting ideas and perceptions in a good very short story.

What flash fiction writers do you admire and why? Are there any specific pieces that you found compelling?

I don’t actually read a great deal of flash fiction–maybe because I want to come to the writing of my own freshly from other kinds of literature. I read a lot of non-fiction, poetry, novels, and so forth. But I have enjoyed the work of Ron Carlson and Peter Cherches, among contemporary writers, and, as I mentioned earlier, Kafka was very important to me especially when I was first writing–the very short and wildly imaginative pieces in Parables and Paradoxes.

What flash piece of your own are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

That’s a difficult question, since each piece was composed in response to a different idea, or need, or inspiration, or pleasure, and I like them all for different reasons (or they wouldn’t have made it into the books). One I like especially is the very last one in my most recent book, Our Strangers. It is called “When I Am Dead and Gone” and it is in broken lines, like a poem.

Read some of Lydia Davis’ work here:

“Everyone Cried” from the New Yorker

 And five pieces from Five Dials